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So who does Rex Murphy work for?

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There is a brewing controversy swirling around longtime CBC commentator Rex Murphy and his relationship with Canada's oil industry.

Over the years, Rex Murphy has been a vocal supporter of the oilsands industry and a booster of those who attack the scientific realities of climate change. 

Now questions are going unanswered by the CBC, and avoided altogether by Murphy himself, about a conflict between Murphy potentially being paid to speak at oilsands industry events and his role as a commentator at the CBC.

First to report on the potential conflict, longtime investigative journalist Andrew Mitrovica wrote on iPolitics that he was taken on a "disturbing odyssey into the CBC’s Byzantine world of subterfuge, duplicity and plain lunacy," as he tried to unravel Murphy's relationship with the CBC and the oilsands industry in Canada. 

The CBC stated that Murphy is not an employee of the public broadcast and instead has, as CBC's Editor in Chief Jennifer McGuire describes it, "a wonderful freelance relationship" with the public broadcaster.

According to McGuire, "as a freelancer, Rex has the ability to do other work. So yes, he writes opinion pieces for The National Post. And yes, he does speaking engagements." The only thing the CBC asks of Murphy is that his commentary "be rooted in fact and experience, not just opinion or knee jerk ideology. But taking a provocative stand is what we pay him to do."

Regardless of CBC's positioning, if it turns out that after all these years, Murphy has been taking money from the oil industry while at the same time attacking those who oppose oilsands development and boosting the industry in his role as a CBC commentator, it will be a big scandal.

For me it is the definition of "fact" that is at the heart of the matter here.

In the case of public policy debates, rather than something like hard science, facts are a very tricky thing.

One person's set of facts on say, whether the Alberta oilsands are good for the long-term prosperity of our country, are to a great extent driven by where that person sits on the issue. It is no coincidence that many of those in favour of further development of the oilsands are apt to quote positive facts and also just so happen to be those profiting the most — whether that be a worker in Fort McMurray making five times his regular wage, an oil company CEO or a Prime Minister who enjoys the political and election campaign support of the fossil fuel industry.

The same holds true for the environmental community, although there is rarely a financial motivation (trust me, I know first hand!). Depending on your worldview, one set of facts will seem more correct than another.

Knowing where someone sits financially and/or ideologically on an issue of public policy is important context when considering the set of facts that person bases their opinion on. It is for this very reason that we have election financing disclosure laws in Canada. It is also why in many scientific fields, researchers must disclose any funding they receive from industry for their work. 

The CBC expects Murphy's commentary to be "rooted in fact" and in turn the public has the same expectation. If it is the case that Murphy is being paid money by the same industry he publicly comments on, then this must be disclosed to the public, which can then be the judge of whether or not Murphy's set of facts sit right with them. 

When it really comes down to it, if Rex Murphy and the CBC believe Murphy's commentary for all these years has been "rooted in fact and experience, not just opinion or knee jerk ideology" then what has Murphy got to hide?

As it stands now, with Murphy ducking the question and the CBC not demanding disclosure from Murphy, his relationship with the CBC is "wonderful" indeed — at least for him and the oil industry he may or may not be taking money from.

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